I know hardly a person who doesn’t have a beverage vice, and I imagine if a study or poll were conducted, coffee, diet soda, and wine would top the list. There’s always a fine line between the enjoyment we receive in partaking of these drinks and the potential detriment. For some, it’s cut and dry – a glass of wine in the evening to relax? Sounds delightful, and I hear it’s good for your heart. Too much? That’s an addiction with severe consequences. Coffee to start your morning? There’s not a sweeter aroma to wake the soul. Too much coffee? Turns out it may be beneficial, so I’ll take a second cup! But diet soda- that hasn’t been so cut and dry. It depends on which study you read, who you ask, and what type of artificial sweetener is allegedly causing cancer these days. The debate on whether diet soda is “healthy” has never been solidified, leaving many diet soda addicts chugging along until they’re given a good reason to quit.
In this post, I want to cover some common concerns about diet soda and artificial sweeteners. The two biggest concerns I hear from people are whether or not artificial sweeteners are safe and is it better to drink diet or regular soda in regards to health and weight loss.
As someone who wholeheartedly believes the best food on this planet comes FROM a plant and is not made IN a plant, no tears would be shed if it was discovered artificial sweeteners, in fact, weren’t good for us. But, I am a believer in evidence-based recommendations and the truth is most artificial sweeteners have been thoroughly studied and there’s no reason to believe consuming them at levels present in common food products is harmful.
When the FDA approves a food additive, they do so by recommending an acceptable daily intake (ADI). This number is an estimate of the amount of this food additive an individual could consume every day over a lifetime and not cause harm. The ADI is determined by the scientific community based on the best and most reliable research available, who then makes recommendations to the appropriate regulatory authority and ultimately the FDA. In determining the ADI, researchers typically take the highest amount of a particular additive known to have NO harmful effect on animals, then divide that number by 100 as a margin of safety for humans. So ultimately the ADI recommended for humans is actually based off a very conservative estimate.
For example, the ADI for aspartame is 50 mg/kg/day. That means in animal studies, as high as 5,000 mg/kg/day was shown to not cause harm. For a human weighing 150 pounds, their ADI for aspartame would be 3400 mg per day. If the safety factor of 100 were not present, they could potentially consume 340,000 mg per day, every day for life, before reaching levels thought to cause potential harm in animals. To put this in perspective, one can of diet soda has about 180 mg of aspartame.
Many of these artificial sweeteners have been around for years and thoroughly studied. Some are newer and don’t have as much research behind them. But I was hard pressed to find any research showing known, direct harm from artificial sweeteners. We’ll come back to the term “direct,” in a second.
What about health and body weight? If you subscribe to the calories in, calories out theory, then substituting regular soda or a snack with diet soda would create a caloric deficit and should theoretically help with weight loss. However, no concrete studies have found this to be the case. Some studies even suggest high consumers of diet soda are more likely to gain weight and have other health problems. So although there is no direct safety issue with artificial sweeteners, we haven’t ruled out an indirect negative health effect. Truthfully, it’s not cut and dry and although the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association both approve of artificial sweeteners as a good alternative to caloric sweeteners, there’s no good evidence to support those who drink diet soda are healthier or more likely to lose weight. It’s also one more strike against the calories in, calories out theory for weight loss.
Potential theories about how artificial sweeteners may have negative health and weight implications include disruption in the reward pathway for food. You taste something sweet, but no actual calories are consumed so in response your brain drives up hunger and you eat more. Or, perhaps people justify higher caloric foods because they didn’t consume calories in their drink. It appears however, that doesn’t fully explain why diet drinkers may be heavier or have other health issues.
Another theory is that artificial sweeteners affect our gut microbiota, altering its natural protective effects against weight gain and other metabolic dysfunction. There’s a lot of growing research in this field and I suspect we will hear more about this.
Something else to consider is artificial sweeteners can be 100-1000 times sweeter to our taste receptors than sugar. If your taste buds adapt to that level of sweetness, foods naturally sweet like fruits and vegetables will taste bland. This is especially concerning for kids, whose taste is developing and adapting. If their taste receptors are constantly receiving sensory overload from artificial sweeteners, they won’t be able to appreciate the natural sweetness of whole foods meant to be consumed for health and pleasure.
So in deciding whether or not to continue your diet soda habit, I suggest not asking “Is this harmful,” but rather “Is it helpful?” Is what you’re consuming two to three times a day every day optimal for your overall health? Would you be better off cutting back on soda consumption in general, diet or regular, and drinking more water? Would you enjoy the taste of real sugar periodically instead of tolerating the taste of Sweet’n’low every day? Are unsweetened beverages like coffee and tea more enjoyable if left unsweetened, where their natural earthy flavors can be appreciated?
Ultimately, these are some of the reasons I ditched my diet soda habit. I have learned from experience when I give up fake food, real food taste that much more amazing. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share my experience with that. I’m not here to tell you it’s something you have to give up in order to be healthy. And I’m certainly not saying exchanging 3 diet drinks a day for 3 sugar-sweetened beverages is good for you. But ask yourself some of these questions as you decide what’s best for your health.